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Cardinal König: Man of Faith, Man of Dialogue

Monday, 5. April 2004
Cardinal (Franz) Kí¶nig

Cardinal (Franz) Kí¶nig of Vienna speaking in Cambridge MA (Photo: Henry J. Adler, Harvard Crimson)

Peter Thwaites remembers one of the most influential Church leaders of the late 20 Century, who died in March.

Cardinal (Franz) Kí¶nig

Cardinal (Franz) Kí¶nig of Vienna speaking in Cambridge MA (Photo: Henry J. Adler, Harvard Crimson)

Cardinal (Franz) König who died in Vienna on 13 March, aged 98, was one of the Catholic Church's most influential leaders of the late 20 Century. Hella Pick, writing his obituary in The Guardian (London), reckons him among the 'outstanding individuals whose ideas and actions make a real difference to their age'. The Times wrote: 'His far-reaching ideas will survive him.'

The Tablet's Vienna correspondent says he was 'Austria's conscience'.

The key to König's influence can also be seen in his warm and open spirit. His reputation as a 'liberal' stemmed not from a fiery radical agenda but from his interest in all people, including people from backgrounds other than his own, making him a man of exceptional moderation.

In 1978 König played a decisive part in the election of Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Cracow, as Pope John Paul II. John Paul's subsequent role in the peaceful demise of communism in Eastern Europe is now part of history.

König was a great encourager and reconciler. On the ABC's Religion Report (17 March) Hans Küng, the creative, unorthodox Catholic theologian spoke of König's action in writing a preface to one of his books at a time when Küng's views were under suspicion by some in the Church hierarchy.

In his post as Archbishop of Vienna (1956-85) König began to reach out to the churches of Eastern Europe, then behind the Iron Curtain. Such visits were not easy at the height of the Cold War. He was one of the intellectual leaders of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and was asked at that time by Pope Paul VI to head a new Secretariat for Non-Believers.

König's interest in dialogue with non-Christian religions dated from his early years in academia and never ceased. This included lecturing at the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

In his later years König became a strong friend of Moral Re-Armament (today Initiatives of Change). In 1972 I was working with MRA in Vienna with a senior Swiss colleague, Heini Karrer, and we met His Eminence several times. Then we discovered he was on holiday in Switzerland and invited him the nearby international conference centre at Caux. (The Archbishop of Malta had just been in Caux and this also sparked his interest.) Karrer and I drove up the Rhone Valley to fetch him. Caux so captivated him that he stayed for an extra day. Over the next years there was a growing sense of common cause, with frequent meetings and actions and travels undertaken together, including a three-week speaking tour of the USA. He returned to Caux, enjoying the community and joining a dining room service team. Personal friendships grew between König and a number of MRA's leadership, including Pierre Spoerri who attended his state funeral in Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral, where he was buried in the crypt.

During the 1980s König accepted an invitation from MRA in Britain for speaking engagements in Oxford and London. At an Oxford reception König met Garth Lean, Frank Buchman's biographer. When the Cardinal heard about Lean's biography he immediately said: 'Oh, Buchman was a turning point in the history of the modern world through his ideas.'

Kí¶nig and Newton

Cardinal Kí¶nig with James Newton, Cambridge MA

In 1986, Cardinal König visited the USA for three weeks as a guest of MRA. In Washington, he spoke at Washington's Catholic University, Georgetown University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, using these opportunities to share his personal experiences of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block countries with decision makers. In New York, he met with union leaders who shared their experience of IofC/MRA and had luncheons and a dinner with senior UN officials, banking and industrial figures. He was awarded a silver salver by the Austro-American Council to thank him for his efforts at 'maintaining an open dialogue between East and West, Christians and non-Christians'. Amongst several engagements in academic institutions in the Boston area, the Cardinal gave a lecture at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he stressed the importance of dialogue between the East and the West.

A special memory is König's speech in Caux in 1986 in which he challenged MRA/IofC to use its spiritual assets to overcome East-West tensions in Europe through more active dialogue. I was translating his speech from the German and could not help feeling that the Cardinal was perhaps a little over-optimistic, despite the glimmerings of a thaw in the Cold War since Gorbachev's accession as Soviet leader. 'I know that it is not easy to develop a dialogue there with people who have grown up in a system completely different from our own, a system where words like truth, good and evil often have a different meaning,' König conceded in his speech. But he continued: 'I believe that in this area too, a discovery made by Frank Buchman will prove to be correct: that people in the East as well as the West need the courage to look deep inside themselves and to discover the conscience that the Creator implanted there: in other words, the source of spirit and truth....

'We must have faith that these people have the strength in themselves to find an appropriate way of changing their own thinking and living. At the same time we must also re-discover in ourselves that truth of the Gospel that will help us to alter our own life in an appropriate and lasting way.'

One could argue about the chances of such hopes in Cold War conditions. But with the amazing collapse of the European communist regimes just three years later, König's words were borne out. One of the most important aspects of IofC work in the 15 years that have followed has been the new dialogue with Eastern Europe, in and from Caux, and the emergence of young teams there working for a civilisation based on moral and spiritual values.

Franz König had a bigness of spirit that saw beyond intellectual analysis to the human being. He put his faith in God and in the humanity that God had created. He spoke modestly and simply but time has shown the wisdom in that simplicity.

Peter Thwaites